Anthem for a Time of Challenge

The Snake River and Grand Tetons range, photographed by Ansel Adams in 1941-1942. From the National Archives, in the public domain.

The Land that’s literally the ground of our existence can support us and give us strength as we grow weary of a crisis that begins to seem endless. Almost a month ago, I pointed out that the title number at the end of “Oklahoma!” speaks with an Indigenous voice, expressing the inherent power of the Land in a way that can uplift our hearts. Today I want to share another piece of music that conveys this same uplifting power in lyrics that speak in an unexpectedly Indigenous voice. A transcription of the lyrics appears beneath the video. The singer is Josh Groban, and the song is titled “Anthem.” Listen carefully, and let the power of the Land lift you in this time of turmoil and conflict, fear and frustration. The Land holds with strong power those who understand where their lives are truly rooted. Ansel Adams (no relation) certainly understood that power, letting it speak through visual image. Music, image, dance, and story are all ways that Knowledge of real relationship can speak to human hearts, bringing a timeless message of hope.

“Anthem”

No man, no madness
Though their sad power may prevail
Can possess, conquer, my country’s heart
They rise to fail

She is eternal
Long before nations’ lines were drawn
When no flags flew, when no armies stood
My land was born

And you ask me why I love her
Through wars, death, and despair
She is the constant, we, who don’t care
And you wonder will I leave her
But how?

I cross over borders but I’m still there now

How can I leave her?
Where would I start?
Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart
My land’s only borders lie around my heart

Songwriters: Mathias Per Andersson / Mikael Berndt Claesson / Geir Pedersen /
Robert Samsonowitz
Anthem lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Lyrics are from LyricFind.

Original song is from the musical Chess.

COVID-19 in the Context of Sacred Commemorations

These are the desert lands that challenged people in the traditional story of liberation and community bonding that is honored in Jewish traditions this week, the spiritual significance of which was celebrated by the great spiritual leader of the people in Christian traditions on the last night of life before his own moment of challenge and transition. Image is from the public domain.

This week, of all weeks — and this week of this particular year, of all years — is one that should stir into waking life a visceral understanding of Indigenous values, deep within the hearts of people of the dominant culture. For this week commemorates events during which individuals set aside their own personal fears and desires, and did so for the benefit of the greater good of their entire community, understanding that any individual is only as safe and whole as the larger whole of which they are an embodied part — the Whole that is the very source of life.

The original events were occasions when participants learned through spiritual ways of knowing. The stories that tell about what happened then are mythic ways of knowing that bring this Knowledge into our times so we can experience and learn from this wisdom in our own lives. The different ways of knowing are not restricted to any one culture in terms of existence, as they exist in all cultures. But spiritual and mythic ways of knowing are more widely recognized as valid in Indigenous culture than in Western culture — even though, as you can see in the stories to which I am about to refer — mythic and spiritual ways of knowing have had great power in Western culture for millennia. Valuing these ways of knowing in no way minimizes or devalues intellectual or experiential ways of knowing. (In fact, rituals such as those described below engage experiential ways of knowing.)

Wisdom emerges only when all the ways of knowing, learning about, and responding to the natural world and to life itself are integrated. And the systems of values by which communities and individuals live are informed by, and manifest, the wisdom of that community.

During Passover, people of the Jewish tradition ritually eat certain foods that are limited in taste and quality because they commemorate a time the People as a whole were in a time of hardship and facing an unprecedented change in their lives. Not only that, they were hunkered down in their homes during a time of plague, filled with fear as the keening of grief echoed through the night landscape. But we do not read of the most devout members of this group setting themselves apart from their community at that time, insisting they had a right and even a duty to go outside and gather better foods for their holy offerings. We do not read of them violating the instructions they had been given to shelter in place in order to gather for a reading of their holy texts. Instead, we see these people acknowledging and honoring their deep relationship to one another, their social and spiritual and biological contract of kinship and oneness, by setting aside their own individual fears to do what was necessary for the good of All. We know, if we read that story, that the tension between their individual fears and desires and the genuine, desperate need to protect well-being of the whole community was a throbbing source of anguish for many years after this one night. The story paints the struggles clearly, and it’s clear that even so many years ago the community leaders found it necessary to invoke authority, law, and punishment to maintain the unbroken unity that permitted everyone to survive the ordeal. In those laws and punishments, we see the response still visible today, to the value system of “individual rights are the most important thing” that has come to dominate contemporary culture when it rebels against the value system that prioritizes the good of the whole. This is not the time or place where either value system was born, however. Both live within human hearts. It is our responsibility and our joy to work through that struggle within ourselves during each and every challenging moment — the most creatively productive moments — of our lives.

During Easter week, people of the Christian tradition ritually commemorate, first, their great leader’s own commemoration of the Passover tradition just mentioned. In one of the sacred stories told of these events, in the book of John, the story is even told in such a way as to ritually align this great spiritual leader with the lambs killed during the original Passover event to provide not only food to people about to face the most grueling moment of their lives, but the blood with which to paint their doorposts in order to spare them from death by plague. Notice that this blood, which is compared to the blood of the spiritual leader, becomes the blood of the People themselves — a sign of their literal common blood as living beings related to one another and bound by this mark of blood. The death of the leader as the story plays out marks them as being of One Blood — a community — as his blood symbolically marks the doorposts of their individual lives. And again, in this story, we see the same struggle between individual fears and desires on the one hand, and the greater good for the whole on the other. When the leader is arrested, he does not resist though one of his followers responds at first with violence. After the arrest, another follower denies that he knows the leader, out of fear for his own life — not once, but repeatedly. Again there comes a time when the people in the community hunker down to wait things out. Even the leader, who has been killed, hunkers down to wait for death to pass by. And then, in the proper fullness of time — determined by Real Time, not by human decision — the community is reborn and life begins to pulse again . . . in the entire Whole. It can only happen because the people were finally able to set aside their own individual fears and desires, their own timetables of what should happen when, and allow themselves to be carried on the river of Real Time and What Is. This is the river of All My Relations. And it carries everything, not just human beings. As this particular spiritual leader pointed out, it carries even the sparrows, and the very lilies of the field.

The struggle between individual needs, fears, and desires and the greater good for the Whole of which we are all a part exists within every heart. In Indigenous cultures, the value system that is privileged, that is taught to young people and generally upheld in specific situations when important decisions must be made, is one in which the greater good for the Whole has precedence. There are fairly recent historical stories of times when individual young warriors raced out ahead of the rest of a war party because their anger at recent and violent injustice, or their desire for personal war trophies, spurred them into wanting to score an immediate individual victory over an enemy. The war chiefs stopped and abased them for daring to risk the larger victory and survival of the People as a whole for the sake of satisfying personal desire. There is a fairly recent historical story of a leader who was stripped of his authority and honors because he put his own desires for love ahead of the good of the whole People, engaging in a relationship that he knew would create violent animosity between different families and so endanger the whole group. At this time, stories of individual sacrifice for the good of the whole are playing out across Indian Country. They are not my stories to tell, so I do not share them here. But I am filled with pride and admiration for the People as I learn of such stories.

Now, as in the times of these stories I have just told, is a time of great trial for everyone. It is these times of great trial, times of desperate hardship and risk, that the value system of Serving the Greater Whole is most essential to uphold. This is what the sacred stories of the traditions I have shared tell us, even now. It is what the people of two great religious traditions of the world celebrate this very week.

You know you belong to the Land

You know you belong to the Land

Indigenous understandings of the world and of life are woven deeply into the American experience in ways you simply don’t notice. Here’s an example, one that should give you a lift of powerful joy. It’s from the very end of the main number for which the movie “Oklahoma!”(1) is named. The scene takes place at the end of the story. Watch it once, just to enjoy it and feel the lift it gives you. Then read my explanation below, and watch it a second time with new eyes and ears. (See footnote for full citation.)

The Land itself speaks to you through this little film clip. Here is why I say that. First, the word “Oklahoma” is in the Choctaw language. I have always loved it that this production has all these non-Native people crouched down and rising up, chanting in Choctaw. What they are saying is “Indian Nations” in Choctaw, the language of one of the Five Tribes sent in the 1830s to what has since become the state of Oklahoma (2). The non-Native people in the movie represent settlers who moved into Indian Territory, despite promises it would always be land set aside for Indians. In the film clip, they are chanting “Indian Nations” in the Choctaw language! And here is the salient point about that: we Native people see our languages as having been given to us by the Land itself. So there’s actual, real power in this chanting.

Second, these non-Native people are doing what sure looks to me like part of a Round Dance. At the beginning there, when the people in the middle are crouched down, there are two lines of people moving in opposite circles around the outside of the crouching group. You see that in a very big Round Dance that winds far enough to turn back on itself. The people who choreographed that scene might say they hadn’t ever seen one of our Round Dances or weren’t thinking of it if they had. But we Native people believe our dances were given to us by the Land, too. So I would ask, “Where do you suppose the idea to have people circle this way during this chanting came from?” I think there are things moving here a lot of people just don’t see at first.

By the way, if you want to say there are, in your own homeland’s culture, dances that circle this way . . . well, that Land of your culture’s home provides people with dances too. That’s how we see it, anyway. It’s not just our Land here that does this. A Circle is a very important shape and often shows up in dances, designs of many kinds, and in natural structures such as nests, dens, and lodges. The point is: a circle is an important natural shape that manifests important attributes of the Land, and that therefore shows up in dances the Land inspires. And there it is, right in that movie scene. The Land is literally moving through those dancers and the choreographer.

Finally, listen to the words the people sing when they stand up at the end of the clip. “We know we belong to the Land” is not at all typical of the way people in the dominant culture see Land ownership. They say “I own this piece of land. This land belongs to ME” — not “I belong to the Land.” No, that phrase “We belong to the Land” expresses a particularly Indigenous view of reality. And to say “We know we belong to the Land” . . . well if that’s not the Land itself speaking through the song lyricist’s pen, I don’t know where those words came from. You might be able to explain away the two previous things I’ve pointed to, but this phrase “we belong to the Land” defies any logic of Western worldview. Added to that, the phrase is preceded by a strong statement that “We know this” to be so.

The words of the song are telling you that you know the thing it’s telling you — the thing that runs counter to one of the most fundamental principles of Western culture, that people own the land. It’s telling you that’s not how it is, and that you already know this. The song’s words say, literally, that we all know, deep inside, that we belong to the Land. Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote these words, was of Jewish and Scotch-Irish descent (from what I was able to learn). He certainly didn’t seem to be of Indian descent.

Now watch the clip again, hearing the Choctaw chant and seeing the Round Dance and the strong assertion “We know we belong to the Land.”

Taking all these things together, maybe you can start to see why, if you look at this clip with Native eyes and ears, you start to hear and see the strong presence of the Land moving through all the people involved. Why does this matter? After the people sing “We know we belong to the Land,” they sing, “And the Land we belong to is grand.” That’s also a true statement, and a very important one. It’s true the Land is grand because it is literally the ground of our existence. It is written into your body — your bones, your teeth, your blood, your muscles. Where do you think the atoms come from that form your physical body? The Land is written into the bodies of all the people who somehow staged this incredibly Native piece of song and dance, too — a production number that brought audiences to their feet in live theaters and probably brought your heart to its feet just now. Because you could FEEL it, couldn’t you? A little like the way you felt something powerful moving in you when you played the videos of quarantined people calling and singing and clapping together from their apartments? You felt the power of knowing that we ALL belong to the Land, and the Land we belong to is grand, and that this connects us in a fundamental and essential way. The Land is grand, not for its military might or its economic muscle or its scientific prowess, but for its genuine life-giving POWER. This is why yesterday I said that we Native people are drawing on the Power of the Land to help us through this time, and suggested you might join us in doing the same.

You may not have been consciously aware that the Land is part of who you are, and you are quite literally a part of everything around you, but your heart knows this truth. It leaps with emotion when you perceive the deep connectedness between us. This is what Indigenous people mean when we say “we are all relations.” It’s an essential concept for these times. It’s what can help us, as a nation of people — not a nation of political ideologies or a nation of economic agendas, but a nation of people — to triumph over the challenge facing us now. There is great wisdom in the Land, and in real reciprocal relationship that can guide us through this time of terrible danger — if you can learn how to perceive and respond to it. More importantly, this wisdom can lead us into a powerful time of renewal on the far side of the events unfolding today.

Remember the power of paradox.


1. “Oklahoma!” 1955. Fred Zinnemann, Director. Sonya Levien, William Ludwig, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Lynn Riggs, Writers. Magna Theatre Corporation and Rodgers & Hammerstein Productions. Oscar Hammerstein is the lyricist who wrote the words sung in this film clip. However, “Oklahoma” itself — Okla Humma — is Choctaw. This video clip is used under the Fair Use as stated in the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. § 107.

2. That forced migration is known as the Trail of Tears, and it was a hard time for many people. It’s estimated that about 2,500 of the 15,000 Choctaw alone (not counting the other nations) died of exposure, disease, and hunger on the Trail of Tears. That’s a fatality rate of over 16%. By comparison, the fatality rate of COVID-19 is roughly 2% of those infected. But not everyone is infected with coronavirus, which is why our actions now can make a difference. If we can reduce the numbers of people infected, it will make a huge difference in the number of people who die. Everyone who went on the Trail of Tears, however, was at risk for fatality. No one escaped the “infection” of forced relocation.

Together We Are a Strong People

Together we are a strong people. Our actions provide hope as we face COVID-19.Today, Sunday the 29th of March, we finally saw the projected numbers for possible deaths that I have long known* were the reality we face. I expect these numbers gripped many Americans in a physiological shock response. Here is how to know if that’s what happened to you. In a shock response, you feel all the energy in your body drop into the pit of your stomach like ice water. At the same time, you feel the blood drain out of your limbs as if someone pulled a plug somewhere. All this happens in the space of a fraction of a second. If you’re standing up at the time, you feel you may faint. A shock response is the body’s reaction to traumatic levels of fear. If that happens to you, here is what you must do.

First, breathe. Focus on the exhale. Don’t just think about it, but do it right now. Exhale longer than you inhale. At first it might be hard. You might even feel like you can’t get a breath to come IN to your lungs at all. That’s why it helps to focus on the EXhale at first. If you have to, push in your stomach with your hands a little, to help drive the air out of your lungs. Close your eyes when you do it. Feel the air coming up out of your arms and legs as well as your lungs. Yes, I know technically, physically, that isn’t what happens. But in other ways, it is precisely what happens. Try it, and keep trying it, and you’ll see.

Eventually you will be able to draw in a nice breath. It might even make you shiver or hiccup when you do. When you can get a nice breath this way, make that next exhale even longer. Focus even more on the sense that all the rigidity in your arms and legs is melting or dissolving, and being blown out of your body with your breath. Once you get this process going, keep it up until you can feel the relaxation spreading through all your body, finally up through your shoulders, then your neck, and at last your jaws and face and scalp. Then shake your arms and hands loose, and shake out one leg at a time. Shake yourself all over. Yawn. Stretch.

Now. We don’t need to go into the biology of how or why that works. But it does, and you should be feeling a bit better as a result. Any time you feel your body grow rigid in the coming weeks, or you feel you can’t take a breath, repeat this process. It’s very important to keep your body relaxed enough for blood to circulate properly. This also keeps your body from secreting hormones that increase your sense of anxiety and fear. Feeling calm is a losing battle if you are fighting your own body. Breathing like this helps you and your body be on the same side. It helps you work together. This is important because fear actually makes us less able to think clearly.

So here are some clear thoughts, now that your mind and body are calm: Human beings have faced much worse pandemics than this one many, many times over the millennia. Most of them were from diseases that were a lot more lethal than this one. We all carry the genetic memories of those earlier times of plague — what we now call a pandemic. So of course our bodies respond with fear. But THIS time we humans know more than we did then. We understand how to short-circuit the disease’s transmission. In the past, people didn’t know any of the things we know now, that can help us protect ourselves and our families.

  • We know that the disease is caused by a virus, not by some strange characteristic of the air (called “miasma” — the place people of the dominant culture used to think diseases came from). Because we know where the disease comes from, we know that the key to staying healthy is avoiding close contact with someone who is sick, and also not spreading the disease ourselves through our own actions. That may seem very simple, but it’s something people did not know in the past.
  • Many, many researchers and physicians have been studying this particular virus for about three months. They have learned how it is passed from one person to another, what it takes to kill it, how long it can live on a surface such as a doorknob, and many other things. They have used this information to prepare all those guidelines you’ve been hearing: to wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds, to stay at least 6 feet away from other people, and to wipe down non-porous surfaces such as shopping cart handles, cell phones, and doorknobs. All these pieces of life-saving information are things people did not know in the past.
  • We know how diseases move through populations. By now you are hearing terms like “exponential growth” and “doubling time.” These are terms you will come to understand soon, if you haven’t quite wrapped your mind around them yet. They help all of us — and will help you — be able to SEE when our efforts to slow this virus’s spread actually take place. This will encourage us to not quit too soon. Some places are already seeing this slow-down happen. The measures we are taking have been taken in other places and they’ve worked. They will work here, too — IF we follow the guidelines.

The biggest threat to all of us is for some of us to act like we are still living in the year 1220 instead of the year 2020. Follow the guidelines. Live.

We also have many ways to treat viral pneumonia now that we didn’t have in the past. It’s true that our hospitals may be short on the equipment that can treat the sick, but that’s even more reason to follow the guidelines. Slowing the spread of this disease “flattens the curve” (as you’ve also heard) and allows hospitals to keep handing the influx of people who are ill. Again, if we pay attention to the things we know now that we did not know in the past, we humans can triumph over this pandemic.

Now for the non-medical parts of dealing with your shock response. Indian experience of being ravaged by new diseases is pretty recent. European settlers brought many diseases to America that had never been here before. Sometimes entire villages were wiped out within days by diseases such as smallpox. If any group of people in the world should be in a panic about this pandemic, it’s Indians. Let me share the way many of us are trying to see it, how we are talking about it to one another. Of course, that is what I have been doing for several posts already, and will be doing for many more to come. But right now we are talking about the way to handle this fear response, this sense of shock.

When you read the following words, I give you permission to “repeat after me” and say them (or some version of them) for yourself:

We have survived epidemics before, and we didn’t know as much then as we know now. We will survive this epidemic. It cannot beat us. We are a strong people.

We know that what matters is caring for our helpless, our very old, our very young, our mothers bearing babies. We know that those of us who are young and strong must be certain these others have food and water, shelter and clothing, and medicine. We are a people, not just individuals. We are relations. In our quarantine, yet we are one people and we let ourselves perceive this. In this unity is a strength that can overcome any challenge.

We know that the mind and body work together to keep people whole and healthy, to give people strength and keep people strong. We know we must rise each morning and pray for guidance and strength, and then pray again at night before we lie down to sleep. We must take good care of our bodies through this time in order to have the strong, calm wisdom these times call upon us to have. We must thank our bodies for helping us to be strong. We must thank our minds for helping us to think clearly and without fear.

We must breathe in the air of this Land and ask for its strength every day — for the strength of the mountains, of the rivers; of the skies and the forests, of the vast grasslands, of the deep lakes, of the seas that beat upon the shores and everything in those waters. These things are part of us, and we are part of them. They will help us in this time of trial. We must thank them for their help every day.

We must set aside time each day to do an act that reminds us to focus on these things. We Native people like to burn sage, but you can light a candle, pray or chant using beads, ring a bell, kneel, sing a sacred song, recite a poem, read a sacred text or tell a story from your own religious tradition, or any other thing that is an ACTION that calls your entire being into a focus on this one moment. And in that moment, rise up within yourself and feel the absolute KNOWLEDGE that you can face this time. For you were born into it, and here you are. So of course you can face it. More, you can help everyone in your family face it. Engage them in these actions with you. Include the children, for they are afraid too. Teach them these ways of your ancestors, who are also their ancestors. You can be the one who helps them find this strength within themselves, as you have found it.

Make no mistake, the strength to walk this road is within you. Fear can drive you away from that Knowledge. Fear can make you forget the Knowledge researchers have given you so you know what to do to protect yourself, your family, and everyone in your community from the ravages of this plague. Fear can make you forget the Knowledge of our ancestors that tells us how to live as strong human beings, with pride that we are part of a greater and very mighty whole. It is important you REMEMBER these Knowledges. Do not let fear make you forget them.

You are a human being. You can do this. WE can do this. TOGETHER.

—-

* I knew the numbers of expected fatalities because I am an evolutionary biologist. And, yes, I am enrolled Choctaw.. Those things are not mutually exclusive. If this seems puzzling or illogical to you, please read our pages on Different Ways of Knowing. It’s what we are all about, here. Thank you.

Some COVID Hope in Quarantine

We’ve talked about how important it is to slow down and start living in Real Time if you want to get in touch with the beneficial wisdom of Indigenous Knowledge that can generate COVID hope. Here’s your opportunity to experience Real Time, at least a little bit, and the peace it can bring in a time of great anxiety. We all need COVID hope while we’re in quarantine, self-isolation, or shelter-in-place.

Play the video below. Focus on the sound of the wind in this video. Listen for the birds. Look at the grasses moving. Breathe. Let your body relax. Open your heart to the earth and the sky, the wind and the trees. Let the Land give you a sense of calm peacefulness. Exhale.

Now play the video again. See the area on the hill to your left at the beginning? There are fewer trees there because some years ago there was a very large and devastating wildfire that burned through this entire area — even the place where the photographer was standing to make this video! Why is this important? Because it reminds us all that sometimes things change, and in ways we consider devastating. That’s simply a part of life. But life goes on. And somehow there is beauty again. The world isn’t exactly the same as it was before, but the wind still blows through the grasses and the pines, the birds sing their winter song, and the sun shines even in a clouded autumn sky.

Life will come back again. Breathe. Relax your body. Release your anxiety. Resist the habit impulse to engage in displacement behaviors that will only make make your body more tense.

Watch this video whenever you want. It’s the Land’s gift of Real Time peace for COVID hope.

Filmed by Jo Belasco on the Pine Ridge of northwestern Nebraska, November 2019. The view is to the south and southwest, which are the directions associated with Experiential ways of knowing and Spiritual ways of knowing, respectively. If you look at the directions of south and west on our Circle model, you will see why these directions will help you receive healing from this video.